On both sides of the highway, some cars and trucks stopped as the returning fog and smoke quickly swallowed the night. Those behind them didn’t. There were collisions. There were explosions. Eleven people died, including a Marietta family, and two dozen were hurt in six crashes involving 24 vehicles a year ago Tuesday in one of worst highway tragedies in Florida history.
In the months since, several survivors have filed notice they plan to file negligence lawsuits against the state and blame has been assigned and deflected. The state has taken some safety measures and others are planned. But whether the state has done enough to prevent future tragedies is unclear.
Georgia attorney Bill Mitchell is representing 15-year-old Brazilian national Lidiane Carmo, one of 13 people who have notified the state of their intention to file a lawsuit relating to the crash.
She was riding in a church van and returning with her family to Marietta from an Orlando conference when they were involved in the pileup.
The accident killed her father, Jose Carmo Jr., 43, the pastor at a church for Brazilian immigrants; her mother, Adrianna Carmo, 39; her sister, Leticia Carmo, 17; her uncle, Edson Carmo, 38; and her uncle’s fiancée, Roselia DeSilva, 41.
Lidiane, who was sleeping in her father’s lap, survived. She spent six weeks in the hospital recovering from several broken bones and internal injuries. She has been adopted by an uncle in Georgia and is back in school.
“If the state highway patrol would have done things different, this never would have happened,” Mitchell said. “One of the resolutions we’re seeking is making sure they’re putting things in place so this doesn’t happen again.”
Mitchell said that when Gov. Rick Scott visited accident victims or their families in the hospital days after the crash, he told them that the state “would do what is necessary to do what is right.” But now state officials are telling him and other lawyers to go ahead and sue, rejecting any negotiation overtures.
“We have had preliminary reports come out that say the State of Florida has had significant culpability. I’m surprised that their risk management has taken a different position. We’re not saying the state is 100 percent at fault, but given the findings and reports, they hold some culpability,” Mitchell said.
Paynes Prairie is a low-lying, poorly lit stretch of I-75, which runs the length of Florida from Miami-Dade County into Georgia. Heavy fog and smoke had forced its closure early last Jan. 29, but by about 3 a.m. there was enough visibility that the Florida Highway Patrol was debating whether to reopen it. A sergeant objected, saying that if the visibility again dropped there wouldn’t be time to reclose the highway. But a lieutenant, with support from state forestry and transportation officials, overruled him, citing the danger of drivers taking unfamiliar back roads in the darkness. Within 15 minutes, the sergeant’s fears were realized.
“I could see perfect, one second later, it’s like walking into a blank, to a white blanket that you can’t see nothing,” trucker Hector Rodriguez told a FHP investigator after his stopped semi was struck multiple times. “I started hearing people, you know, something banging on the back of the truck. All these accidents bang, everybody bang, like seconds behind each other.”